An Interview With Carlson Dean Sri Zaheer

by John A. Byrne on

Dean Sri Zaheer’s feisty advocacy for Carlson is partly a function of the deep investment she has made in the school. Both she and her husband, Carlson strategy professor Aks Zaheer, have been teaching at the school since 1991. Before being tapped as Carlson’s new boss in March of 2012, she had been the associate dean for faculty and research. Though their daughter recently graduated with an MBA from Harvard Business School, the university would be hard pressed to find a more passionate spokesperson for the school.

We sat down with Zaheer over lunch in San Francisco.

So where are your priorities?

To stabilize the financial model of the school, to raise our profile and to build stronger partnerships with the business community.

Let’s take a look at each of these goals. Though you have only been dean six months, tell me what you’ve done to advance each objective.

The University of Minnesota has been a phenomenal public university, but state support has fallen to $4 million this year from $14 million in 2008. So one of the first things we did was to add a surcharge to business undergraduates at the school. We have 2,350 undergrads at Carlson. When the $2,000 surcharge goes into full effect in 2016, it will bring in an extra $4.8 million in revenues a year to Carlson. Tuition is still dirt-cheap, and we have the highest graduation rate and the lowest student debt at the university. In 2010, 87% of the program’s graduates were employed within 90 days of graduation, and 46% graduated with no debt. What we were charging to come to Carlson was a historical artifact of not looking at pricing for many years. The annual tuition for a resident was $12,800. This year it is $13,300.

I want to increase our endowment. It ranges from $135 million to $165 million. We have to do something about keeping higher education affordable. We have a public responsibility to educate our people. So a big part of the increase in endowment would go toward scholarships and another bit part to retain and build our faculty. We want to double or triple our scholarship money. I go to conferences and deans openly envy our faculty. I want to keep it that way.

And what about your second goal to raise the profile of the school?

That involves getting out and telling people how great the Carlson School is. In San Francisco, I’m meeting with the CEOs of Wells Fargo and McKesson. Then, I fly to Los Angeles and will meet with the CEO of Disney Parks, who is an alumnus. I talk about the three Es: education, engagement and employment.

Our student outcomes are great. We were number one in job placement last year. We’re hands-on and high touch. What we offer our full-time MBA students is a boutique educational experience, customized to their individual needs. All the students know each other by their first names. They get attention. It’s about relationships and connects. We do a better job of connecting our students to the business community and the faculty.

Stanford is for entrepreneurs. Wharton is for Wall Street. Harvard takes in consultants and investment bankers who go there to party hard for two years and go back to consulting and banking. We are the place for real businesses, whether it’s healthcare, consumer marketing, or agricultural business. We’re way better than Kellogg in marketing, and we’re among the top three schools in big data analysis.

So why hasn’t the market recognized all these positive things?

All the powerful media is on the East Coast or in London.

Based on your placement stats, it would seem that the school already has very good partnerships with business. What do you hope to do there?

We have strong relationships with lots of businesses, but want to be a core school for more national and international firms. So you find the alumni, go meet with the senior executives, and you make the case for why they should hire our students.

So what makes Carlson a good place to get an MBA degree?

Our students have ringside seats to everything that is happening in the world of business. Wall Street is laying off 50,000 people this year. If you want to be an investment banker, go to Wharton. For folks who are trying to do something different with their lives, there is nothing better than our school.

We have four enterprise programs. They are projects that teams of students do with companies. The firms get to know our students very well from the enterprise projects in brands, consulting, ventures and funds. It’s phenomenal for career changers but it’s also good for career enhancers because they have the ultimate responsibility for the project work.

We’ve had teams at General Mills and Target. They’ve worked on everything from sustainability at General Mills to immigration and investment with the Minnesota Department of Trade. The students have done a pricing project for Best Buy and a social media project for help the Lutherans reach out to the evangelical base. This year, a group will work with the university’s athletic program to improve sales to football games at the new stadium.

As you learn the theory in the classroom, you want to have the ability to straight away apply it. So you get this hands-on, high-touch way of doing business. I meet a lot of business school deans who say, ‘we don’t know how to keep our students engaged in the second year. Year two is a party.’ Not here. All of the enterprise projects are 15 months long. Students start half way through their winter term in March during the first year. They work with a faculty director and a professional director. A former McKinsey manager heads the consulting enterprise.

Two weeks ago, Newsweek magazine published a cover story that asked the question, “Is College A Lousy Investment?” What do you think?

It’s a seriously ridiculous debate. It’s populist anti-elitist rhetoric. Maybe it sounds good to some people, but education is probably the only investment that always pays off.

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